24 October 2010

Shepherds or Butchers?

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Clericalism suffocates; it makes part of itself into the whole sacred character of the Church; it makes its power a sacred power to control, to lead, to administer; a power to perform sacraments, and, in general, it makes any power a power given to me! Clericalism separates all “sacredness” from the lay people: the iconostasis, communion (only by permission), theology. In short, clericalism is de facto denial of the Church as the body of Christ, for in the body, all organs are related and different only in their functions, but not in their essence. And the more clericalism clericalizes (the traditional image of the bishop or the priest emphasized by his clothes, hair, e.g., the bishop in full regalia!) the more the Church itself becomes more worldly; spiritually submits itself to this world. In the New Testament, the priest is presented as the ideal layman. But almost immediately there begins his increasingly radical separation from the lay people; and not only separation, but opposition to lay people, contrast to them. The tragedy of theological education lies in the fact that young people who seek priesthood are consciously or unconsciously seeking this separation, power, this rising above the laity. Their thirst is strengthened and generated by the whole system of theological education, of clericalism. ~Fr. Alexander Schmemann [Journals, pp. 310 & 311]

Fr. Alexander had a way of cutting to the core of things that I have always found refreshing. Having read, and enjoyed, many of his books, I found his journals (published posthumously) to be the one of the most honest and refreshing things I have ever read from an Orthodox clergyman. In the section above, as on other occasions, he reflects on clericalism, specifically from the vantage point of the Dean of a seminary, having seen scores of young men pass through the doors of his institution, many times I’m sure after the wrong things.

I have had the opportunity of late to reflect on a number of things, primarily due to the lack of the presence of children in my home (and thus an abundance of silence) but also due to their departure, a more pensive and introspective demeanor. At the forefront of that has been my decade long struggle of whether or not to enter seminary and proceed down the path towards ordination to the diaconate and priesthood. My wife and I are at a unique crossroads, and now certainly seems like the time to continue down the path, should that be what we hear God beckoning us to. However, as is often the case with reflection and contemplation, I find myself in a very different place than I was even two to three months ago.

I’ve always “felt” a calling to ministry, even as a young boy, and that desire and direction has never ceased. I left home at 18 to pursue a sort of seminary and attempt to fulfill what I perceived to be the end of that road. However, life, as it always does, took several twists and turns that I would never have planned on, and I am not a priest, but rather, a married (and merry) irreverent, impious, oft rebellious, Subdeacon-Camp Director-Youth Pastor-Musician-Computer Support….Guy.

As I looked back over my past desire/longing/neurosis over seminary and ordination I finally had to take stock of why this was so important to me – not just the ministry & pastoring part, but the ordination part. My spiritual father once remarked to me “Well, the desire to serve Christ as an ordained priest in and of itself is not bad, but for you, this is seemingly very important, and we must get to the bottom of what that’s about. We’ll talk about that at some point.” Have I ever really heard a call to serve, or have I just always tried to please those whom I admire? Have I ever really wanted to be a truly humble servant, or do I simply want to be admired, recognized, and well thought of? Is it “me as Christ,” or “Christ in me?” Have others actually seen a call on my life, or have they simply seen good leadership qualities? Is it simply charisma or is it a calling? (And there is a difference…)

It seems to me that many young men that pursue a vocation to the priesthood are often, as Fr. Schmemann so aptly put it above, seeking a vainglorious separation from the laity and an elevation to a position of power and attention. In our fallen, prideful, arrogant humanity, we associate any calling with what we perceive to be the ultimate realization of that path – ordination to the priesthood. However, this is not always so. We are often being given specific tasks in this life by God, the execution of which are not based solely on one’s rank and title. Clericalism however, mandates that one must achieve that elevation in order to be acknowledged. In other words, “I must have the recognition of man via the external form of ordination to major clergy in order to be noticed and allowed to minister.” Sadly however, this is based on all the wrong things, absolutely inaccurate, and in the end, unless these ideas and arrogance are shed, one runs the very real and present danger of becoming something other than a priest and shepherd to the flock of Christ – one becomes a butcher.

Fr. Thomas Hopko tells the following story:

I heard this once in a talk, how a person was making this point, and they said, “If you go to the Middle East, very often you’ll see a shepherd sitting on an animal, a donkey, and the shepherd will be riding, and he’ll have his little bell, and he’ll have his voice, and the sheep, docilely, will be following, obediently and orderly after the shepherd.” So then the speaker was making the point: “You see, the shepherd may have a crook, a staff, where he can pull back one of the sheep who’s straying, but he doesn’t beat the sheep. He doesn’t use that staff to hurt them. He uses it to protect them, and to protect them even against wolves and so on, as we’ll see in a second, where the imagery continues. But there is no compulsion. There’s no beating. He doesn’t push them into the pen. They follow him freely.”

Well, when this man who’s giving this talk was making this point, a person in the audience raised a hand and said, “Hey, wait a minute! I was once in that part of the world and I saw a man forcing, compelling the sheep, the flock, into the pen, pushing them in, beating them in, whacking them across the rear end, making them to go in. What you’re saying isn’t true!”

And then the speaker said, “Wait a minute. What you saw wasn’t a shepherd. It was the butcher.”

Shepherds and Butchers – a very stark difference. It seems to me that, while the Scriptures say that “many are called, but few are chosen”, the opposite is true in the church today. We have a clerical conundrum that has produced an abundance of clergymen, who despite their best intentions, have not been taught to pastor and care for the sick, suffering, widows, orphans, and the lost, but rather to preserve the Faith, educate the ignorant, and grow the Church using whatever means necessary, and who are often unable to relate to lay people with any sort of reverence and respect as a part of the whole Body of Christ. These men often go on to become butchers – pushing and prodding the people towards God, using guilt, shame, fear, and coercion to keep the flock moving, all the while wondering why there is no joy and why the sheep seem downcast and sullen. This inevitably leaves the priest in an egotistical narcissistic mess where they are the only one’s capable of teaching, preaching, and guiding the people, while consistently overlooking those whom God has put in their parishes, all of whom have a part to play, gifts to give (other than monetary), and who often need only the encouragement of the priest to step up and fulfill their own role in the Church. In the end, this path can only lead a short number of places, including burnout, apostasy, insanity, and the worst possible, indifference, plodding slowly and surely onward into Hell. I am certain that megalomania and workaholism is not what Jesus had in mind when he said “feed my sheep.”

This is indeed where I myself was heading until, as He often does, God got my attention through a small incident a couple of weeks ago. Having run youth camps for over a decade now, and having delighted in nearly every aspect of that job, I found myself often desiring “more” and wanting to “take the next step towards elevation” (another word that is totally contrary to the Gospels.) I ignorantly assumed that, in order to continue to pursue this call, I must give up a ministry that I’m certain I was meant for and that has brought me an immense amount of joy over the years, not to mention has grown me up in ways unimaginable. I also irreverently believed that, while what I’ve been doing is good, in order to really pastor people, I needed to become a priest, and begged God to make it so. Then I visited a little parish in Kentucky, where several of my “camp kids” attend, and realized rather quickly, through their excitement and joy to see the “camp director”, be he a priest or not, that I’m already doing precisely what I’m called to, and to leave that behind in pursuit of anything else would be in error. Truly, “out of the mouths of little ones”…. I was rendered speechless, and was left ashamed and reeling, and in the end repentant of my arrogance and ignorance and oversight of “the least of these” that the Lord directly put in my life. This is not to say that somewhere down the road things won’t change, but seeking ordination for the wrong reasons would be worse than never having sought it at all.

God does indeed call people to be His priests, and there are many very good priests. However, if the Church is to grow, and if people are to be cared for, then the issue of clericalism must be addressed. There are many young men who are pushed, prodded, and “encouraged” towards seminary and priesthood, and guided (even innocently) to give up things that perhaps they’ve been called to already – all of which gives the impression that the priesthood is the end all-be all of church service. (And of course, this says nothing of the role that women must fulfill and how they are treated…but that’s a whole other post…)

The Lord put us here as His hands and feet, and that includes all members of the body, with no special significance given to one member over another. The difference is only in the role that they play, and each role must be encouraged to do it’s task with the utmost effort and sincerity. In the end, we will not be judged based on what men have said about us, or what recognition we have gained, but how well we did our work – that task that God gifted us with and made us specifically able to do. In the end it won’t matter whether or not I was a priest, a deacon, a subdeacon, a reader, a youth pastor, camp director, etc. in my lifetime. It WILL matter what KIND of priest, deacon, subdeacon, reader, youth pastor, camp director, etc., I was, and whether or not I did whatever task I was given to the best of my ability and with the God-given gifts afforded me. If I, and if we all, are to fulfill Jesus’s words to “feed my sheep”, then we must always focus on being shepherds modeled after the One True Shepherd, giving those around us a voice and direction to follow, and never leaving anyone behind, remembering that “the Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep.” Otherwise, all the titles and awards given in this life will be nothing more than a butcher’s trinkets and the flashy insignia that distract us from God, and ultimately will become all the little weights that quietly drag us into hell away from God.

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. … I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd. ~John 10:11,14-16

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Posted 24 October, 2010 by Luke Beecham in category "Discussion", "Life", "Orthodoxy", "Spirituality


  1. By Dianne Combs on

    Dearest Luke, since you are being quite blunt and honest here, let me add something–there is an “I” in priest, but not in “husband.” I understand your “thinking out loud” here, but I also see a big gaping hole in the middle of this thesis. I didn’t see a “we” in this whole thing. I am the wife of a guy who doesn’t like to disappoint by saying “no” to people outside of us, and I have been the one who sat in the lonely, quiet house.

  2. By Luke Beecham (Post author) on

    Dianne – you are quite correct and I would be remiss if I did not say that the “we” entered into every part of my own thought process. I simply did not mention that here, as I’m speaking in generalities for the most part and not going into my own story much, and if anything, I’m speaking more pointedly to young unmarried men (as I once was) who have aspirations towards seminary and are, as I said, often poked, prodded, and encouraged to follow that without much real discernment as to what that may mean. There is a crisis in the Church with clergy burnout and abuses and all kinds of things skyrocketing. I surmise that a big part of this is for reasons mentioned above, and that does of course play into marriage absolutely. Perhaps at some point in the future I’ll make a post about Marriage & Ministry and my thoughts on that. Thank you for your words – they are important and something that bears serious consideration for any married man seeking ordination, as a married priest cannot function alone – his ministry is and must always be “their” ministry together.

  3. By Dianne Combs on

    and, quite selfishly, my family does not want to lose you as camp director. You are filling a very fundamental need in the lives of many young people in our church, a safe place to be themselves and to worship the LORD. It may be a lay ministry, but you hold a big place in “camp world,” which follows the kids around the rest of their lives. And, you know lots of cool new music for liturgy, so stick around.

  4. Pingback: “Shepherds or Butchers?” Redux… – Chanting Down Babylon

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